Craig Sheppard

Craig Sheppard, a native of Lawton, Oklahoma, lived in two worlds during his college years. He was a rodeo bareback rider in arenas from Oklahoma to New York's Madison Square Garden, and an outstanding graduate student in art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He arrived in Reno, Nevada in 1947 to serve as chair of the University of Nevada art department. Sheppard's exceptional skills as a watercolorist and charisma made him a cultural icon in northern Nevada.

Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.

Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
Sophie Sheppard

CRAIG SHEPPARD (1913-1978)

Sheppard was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1913, only six years after that territory had become a state. His father, Slim, was a big man, extremely strong and fast on his feet. From him, my father must have inherited his consummate skills as a storyteller, and thus was able to leave his friends and family a legacy of Oklahoma frontier tales. From my grandmother, Mae, he received both his talent and early encouragement as an artist. She painted china as a hobby, and my father, as an only child, spent much time at her side, well supplied with art materials.

My grandfather and his cronies balanced these gentle pursuits by teaching my father to rope and to ride. As a young man, he was a cowboy and rodeo rider, even riding bulls in Madison Square Garden, and the cowboy mystique was to stick to him for the rest of his life.

Thus it was with some misgivings that my father entered college as an art major, fearing his choice would be considered less than manly. This was before the art world had shifted to New York, for Paris was still the cultural capital of the world. Universities in the United States trained young artists rigorously, formally, and academically. Entire courses-no longer found in university catalogues-were required on such subjects as anatomy and perspective.

There was, however, an added difference at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. Oscar B. Jacobson, chairman of the Art Department, had started a program there for young American Indian artists in the 1920s. So successful was that program, and so strong were its first artists, known as the Kiowa Five, that Native American art had become a major force on the Norman campus. My father became friends with the young Indian artists there, and they each influenced the other.

Oscar Jacobson provided my father with another major component of his future life–the professor's daughter, a beautiful young sculptor starting her own career, was to become my father's wife. Early on, they agreed that she would continue to sculpt and he would concentrate on painting, thus avoiding competition between them. They formed a strong working relationship, and their shared studio was always the core of our house. Smelling of turpentine and clay, it was the place where they worked quietly near each other. Always spare with words regarding his own painting, my father spoke more of his private thoughts about his work to my mother than to anyone else.

Starting married life at the beginning of World War II, Dad was pressed into service at Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa. The huge influx of unskilled workers brought with it the need for three-dimensional drawings to explicate the complicated blueprints for aircraft assembly. While challenging, the work at Douglas did not have the appeal of his prewar teaching posts at the University of Oklahoma and at Montana State University at Bozeman. Consequently, after the war years, he accepted a teaching assignment at the fledgling art department in Reno at the University of Nevada.

As a teacher, he excelled. His teaching reflected his belief that the language of art was not verbal but visual. He had horse sense. A horse could be led, not shoved, and that attitude pervaded his teaching methodology. With his superb drawing skills, he would "show" a student the way out of whatever visual dilemma in which he was enmeshed. This warm, kind man did not give negative criticism. As Jim McCormick has said: "It was almost impossible for Craig to say anything negative about another person." Instead, he was able to discern the personal visual path that a student was attempting to follow, and when the student lost his way, Dad would gently help him find the path again.

It must have been an immense challenge to build an art department in Skunk Hollow, on the eastern edge of the university campus, which was the location of the Quonset huts in which the art department of the 1940s and 50s sweltered in the summer and froze in the winter.

The Nevada desert was a challenge as well to this painter familiar with the brighter colors of the landscape of the Southwest. Free time away from the university found him exploring the Nevada desert landscape, learning to appreciate and paint its subtle colors, strong contrasts of light and dark, and, most of all, its immensity of space. Working mostly in oils, he reflected in his early work the strong classical training of the University of Oklahoma. Traces remain of a flat, decorative use of color derived from the Kiowa Five tradition and Work Projects Administration muralists of the 1930s, with the new forms

In 1955, a Fulbright award to lecture at the University of Oslo on Native American art provided both a change of scene and some comparatively free time to paint. Two themes in my father's work emerged from that year in Norway. His painting became more abstract, often using Norwegian fishing boats for imagery. Again, forms tended to be fairly flat, but the new colors he used were more vivid and were encompassed by stronger linear contours.

Hampered by the short days of the northern Norwegian winter, he developed a second theme. Still full of energy for work, when the light had faded too much for color work, he took up brush and sumi-ink drawing. Producing on a long winter evening fifty or more drawings, mostly of horses, he would discard all but a few. This extensive series is well-known in Nevada, and he returned to it periodically throughout his life, seemingly never tiring of its development.

Following that year we spent an idyllic summer, roaming Europe and camping with our Volkswagon microbus, visiting art museums and collections, chateaux, castles, and cathedrals. I remember my father's excitement at seeing what had to him existed before only as art history reproductions.

On his return to Reno, his work became increasingly abstract, but this experimentation with abstraction was short-lived. Subsequently, he produced a powerful but little-known series of very large oil paintings. He called them his Dead Horse series; typically taciturn, he would say no more about them, although disillusionment with university politics at the time may have provided the impetus for these works. Stylistically akin to the Norwegian paintings developed in 1955, they were strongly allegoric in content. In each painting, a dead horse, belly distended, was figured prominently amid a variety of diverse settings. In retrospect, they seem more related to the apocalyptic paintings of the 1980s than to the abstract expressionist work prevalent at the time they were painted.

An eighteen-month sabbatical to France in 1960-61, provided another pivotal time for my father. Living first in a small village in Touraine, he followed that provincial experience by a lengthy stay in Paris, where, for the first time in his life, he was able to devote his full energies to painting. Retaining some of the structural elements of his prior work, he started a series of watercolors of French bridges and other French subject matter. Coming from the dryness of Nevada, he reflected the atmospheric contrast of a wet French winter in these semiabstract paintings.

Further experimentation with watercolor led to a series, in both watercolors and oils, that he was to continue for some time after his return to Nevada. Dreamlike figures predominate, almost engulfed in loose, glowing washes of color. Now occupied once again with teaching as well as additional responsibilities as chairman of the Nevada State Council on the Arts, he continued to paint, gradually moving from the lush watercolors and oils that he had developed in France to watercolors of the Nevada desert.

Commissions for illustrations from various presses–notably the University of Nevada Press portfolio, Landmarks of the Emigrant Trail–intensified his interest in the Nevada desert theme. He and my mother spent more than a year exploring traces of the old Applegate-Lassen emigrant trail across Northern Nevada, and out of these works eight paintings were reproduced for the portfolio. Another sabbatical to Mexico allowed him to continue with watercolors similar to those produced for the emigrant trail series.

Watercolor is the medium for which he is most noted and in which he worked exclusively toward the end of his life. A transparent medium, difficult if not impossible to rework or correct, it seemed to suit his temperament. I have an image of my father in a pose that I saw him repeat many times. He is sitting on a sagebrush-covered hill somewhere in Northern Nevada, not speaking, looking intently at the scene before him, and painting it in his mind's eye. He would look just as intently at a blank sheet of paper when starting a painting. I have often wondered if he saw a painting in its completeness before he ever picked up a brush. He would look and look, and then in one decisive movement, he would lay on a wash. Thus he would proceed until gradually, and most economically, a painting would emerge.

As a child, of course, I was more impressed with other things. Dad would gather a bunch of kids around him, hand one of us a piece of paper and a pencil with the instructions to make twelve dots on it, anywhere. Then he'd ask us what we wanted him to draw. And whatever we requested, he would draw for us, connecting all the dots. He never missed one. We thought that was pure magic.

I have never been able to see a professional person as an entity separate from that individual's qualities as a human being. This is especially true of my thoughts of my father: painter, teacher, and a warm, loving human being.

I know he was loved by many. One of his former students, Fred Reid, says it beautifully:

Craig Sheppard was my master of art. It is probably trite to say he taught me almost all I know about art, but it is true. He cut me out of the herd, put me into the barn, and gave me my roots in art. For this gift, I will forever be in debt to Craig Sheppard. I know repayment will be made by teaching my own students the beauty and strength Craig taught me. Just one more goodbye, ol' boss, I love you so ...

I feel the same way.

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